Don’t expect first class on Sun Country Airlines’ remodeled airplanes. Do expect slimmer seats and updated power outlets.
The Eagan-based airline is renovating the interior of all its airplanes, a capacity-boosting step and a highly visible change in its broader revolution.
The entire fleet, expected to reach 30 planes by the end of the year, will undergo the makeover in November and December, the company announced Wednesday. In an e-mail to customers and employees, Sun Country CEO Jude Bricker outlined what to expect.
Sun Country will install slimmer seats, similar to those seen in economy class on other major U.S. airlines, allowing for more seats per plane.
With the changes, the airline’s fleet, a mix of Boeing 737s, will all be able to seat 183 people. That’s 45 percent more than the 126 seats currently on its 737-700 planes, and a 9 percent jump on its 737-800s that now seat 168. Sun Country said it will phase out its 700s rather than retrofit them.
The airline has been losing money with the first-class section in its planes. Sun Country has been selling less than half of its first-class tickets while nearly one-third of the seats flew empty, said Brian Davis, the airline’s new senior vice president of commercial.
“That makes it feel like that isn’t an appropriate product for our customers,” Davis said. “I’m fully prepared that there are some people who like first class and will be disappointed to see it go. If we look at the big picture, we believe this is the right decision.”
In its place, Sun Country is establishing a version of premium economy near the front of its plane, which will come with more legroom and likely two complimentary alcoholic drinks but no meal service. Instead of catering hot meals, Sun Country plans to expand its menu of food and snacks for purchase.
Comfortable legroom is no longer a given in air travel. In recent years, it has become a prized amenity that is marketed and sold for a higher price by U.S. airlines. Sun Country will soon be no different. The more expensive seats in the front will be the roomiest with more than a 34-inch pitch — an industry measure for space between rows — gradually shrinking to 32, 30 and eventually 29 inches in the very back rows of the plane.
Sun Country’s current configuration varies from airplane to airplane, but the seat pitch generally falls between 31 and 33 inches in economy seating, according to the airline passenger website SeatGuru.
“To be honest, none of this sounds very pleasant, and none of this sounds very distinct,” said Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst with Atmosphere Research Group.
The cabin overhaul will include USB power outlets in every seat and a full power outlet for laptops in the front premium seats.
The $20 million refresh is the company’s largest-ever investment in its aircraft cabins and comes on the heels of new ownership and major changes in top leadership positions.
Private equity firm Apollo Global Management of New York bought Sun Country last month from local brothers Mitch and Marty Davis. Since Bricker joined Sun Country last summer, he has hired a number of vice presidents from across the airline industry.
Bricker and Brian Davis worked together at Allegiant until both resigned in 2017. Allegiant has garnered significant negative attention in the last two months following a “60 Minutes” report on the Las Vegas-based carrier’s safety and maintenance record. Bricker was chief operating officer of Allegiant during the years now being scrutinized by media, but he is not one of the executives facing litigation over the issue.
The reality, said Davis, is that Sun Country’s passengers are predominantly leisure travelers, so the leadership is trying to fit its product to match their customers’ budget-conscious mind-set. To keep fares low, it has to remove some of the luxury items that he said were not valued enough to be paid for under the old Sun Country model.
Ultra-low-cost carriers (ULCCs) achieve high profit margins by reducing costs, increasing revenue by fitting more passengers on each flight, and charging for seat assignments, use of overhead storage bins and snacks. Allegiant tallied a 17 percent profit margin in 2017, making it the world’s third-most profitable airline, according to Airline Weekly’s annual Global Earnings Scorecard.
By comparison, Delta Air Lines, the largest carrier at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, operates far more flights and a more complex route system than the domestic ULCCs. Last year, the Atlanta-based airline generated the biggest profit among the world’s airlines, netting nearly $3.6 billion. But its profit margin, the difference between its income and expenses, was 14 percent, smaller than both Allegiant’s and Spirit’s, which was 15 percent.
Davis argues the added expense of in-seat power, a full tray table and free soft drinks for everyone proves Sun Country isn’t going to be exactly like other ULCCs, such as Spirit and Frontier — examples of the a-la-carte, pay-as-you-go model of air travel bemoaned by travelers.
But all the moves made by the new leadership are straight from the ULCC playbook, travel analyst Harteveldt said.
“This move is not unexpected because the new owners clearly want to turn Sun Country into a lower-cost airline so it can become a more profitable airline,” he said. “Clearly, this is the Allegiantization of Sun Country.”
Harteveldt gives Sun Country kudos for standardizing the interior of its planes, which are currently a hodgepodge of 12 different seat types.
“I certainly respect the business challenges,” he said. “The fact that they are going to have USB power is smart. The fact that they have to tout a full tray table shows how pathetic the U.S. airline industry has become if that’s a flag you want to wave.”
Sun Country has endured bruises to its reputation in recent months, the worst its handling of the April blizzard that led to stranded passengers in Mexico at the end of its seasonal service there. Starting May 1, the company also outsourced its ground-crew jobs, which has created longer wait times at baggage claim and frustrated passengers across its network.
“We promised to deliver good customer service, and we are failing to do that today,” Davis said. “What customers experienced was unacceptable. It’s tough to see the brand take such a bruise. We don’t want to just make a bunch of promises. We want to do and not talk.”
There will be many more changes to come, Bricker said in his e-mail, and he asked customers, who are predominantly Minnesotans, to stick with the airline.
“Please be patient with us as we work through the transition,” Bricker wrote. “We are hard at work creating a new Sun Country.”